Monday, April 2, 2012

Take It From Me

Every summer, our family took special trips to Riis Park and Jones Beach, premium beaches with big waves and white sand.

But our mainstay was Manhattan Beach. It was close: our summer backyard.

It had things we needed. Grills, handball courts, playgrounds, Good Humor men on trikes.

We'd bring food and the radio and papers and meet our whole extended family there, and stay all day, and into the night.

The waves at Jones and Riis knocked you down, great, and half-drowned you with wildness. The waves at Manhattan Beach broke at your ankles. But swim out far enough and float on your back with the sun in your brain and you were anyplace.

A Sun-Dew orange drink carton would float over you and you'd remember where you were.

The carton had a cartoon sun-guy, big round face, big smile, much simpler than you would even draw yourself, which made it a little frightening.

But Sun-Dew was your friend. Here he was, here you are, at the beach again.

Riis Park was Riis Park, Jones Beach was Jones Beach; Manhattan Beach was the beach.

It was the only beach were Sun-Dew went.

If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.

Like Brooklyn 3, altogether. There were better places to go, places to be. But there were no better places to know, nor be from. Take it from me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Meaning To Leave

Everything changes all the time and there's no sense worrying, I thought. Try to sway things, though, into changing right. You could do that by talking or, better yet, my new intention, writing.

After all, what did politicians do but talk? What were laws but words? What was anything but what you said it was?

God started everything with the Word. He talked all this stuff into being. Why not take a shot yourself?

Don't worry, the things that were really good would never change. The beach, bagels, jokes, the library, Christmas, candy, girls.

The things that were bad, maybe you could help.

I didn't like this war in Vietnam, for instance. They said we had to fight it but they couldn't tell you why. I thought of the older Jewish people in my neighborhood, from Europe, with numbers tattooed on their arms from concentration camps. Someone once in Germany said all that had to happen, too.

I didn't like prejudice. It was kind of a new word for an old thing. Once it was slavery.

I knew about it. There were few black people in my neighborhood and there were none in nicer neighborhoods. There were plenty in neighborhoods east of us, with grimy streets, big projects, no stores, no trees.

I didn't like Brooklyn State Hospital. They had hundreds of mental patients - maybe thousands, counting those you couldn't see, but I'd hear screaming through bars, when I'd walk (illegally) through the grounds.

I knew a lot of the patients from the street, but not any of their names. Did they have names anymore? If no one used them?

I saw a lot get worse, but never better.

So, this was a writer's job. To help things get better. Righting a wrong, or trying to. Or, less grand, just artistically, simply writing a good sentence. Or expressing a thought well. Those were also good goals.

A good sentence was like from super-powers. It existed and you couldn't kill it. Walls couldn't hold it. It could fly: fly anywhere. It could be anywhere and everywhere at the same time.

Words could place me where I was. They could also get me out.

I knew my days were numbered in Brooklyn 3: my daytimes, at the very least. I'd have to go somewhere else for high school. Tilden was our high school and had a good baseball field but beyond that you wanted to know about knives to thrive there, and I was not interested in knife fights on a daily basis.

I'd be gone within 5 years, tops. I could and would leave, but I had things to do first. Didn't I have to prove myself to the place, how good I was? And prove it to anywhere else I would go?

The #46 bus ran through the heart of Brooklyn 3. It had the heaviest ridership of any bus line in the city of New York. There was a reason for that. Brooklyn 3 was a place meant to leave.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The World Swirled

Two things most ubiquitous in life in Brooklyn 3 were baseball and newspapers.

In season, there were two home team baseball games a day. You talked about them til the next day's games. Every day we got 2 newspapers, the News and the Post, of the 7 or so available.

Now that I was a seasoned ballplayer, I was ready to take on the other thing, by starting a newspaper at school.

I wanted to learn to write with the same simple impulse I had to learn to play ball: to do something important well.

Writing was important because you could direct people's attention. You could teach them. Entertain them. Annoy them.

(My father to his brother Robbie one afternoon: "Did you read Breslin today?"

Robbie to my father: lips slightly pursed: "I wouldn't read him."

"What do you mean, you wouldn't read him? You mean you didn't read him? Or you don't read him?"

"I wouldn't read him."

My father knew - as I knew - that Jimmy Breslin made fun of cops. Uncle Robbie, NYPD.)

The world swirled, especially New York, so writers were important because they straightened it, or at least held it down for a minute so you could see it.

I saw the world turning and it pleased me.

Brooklyn 3 was now Brooklyn NY 11203. That was modern.

The Mets had a new stadium and it had mod panels on the sides, in team colors of blue and orange, suspended in mid-air on cables. It was hip and the Beatles would play there.

The Mass had been changed from Latin to English, so people could understand it. They turned the priest around on the altar so you could see what he was doing. They said you were allowed to eat meat on Fridays now and not go to hell. Bad news for fish sticks and pizza, but good otherwise.

LBJ was a funny-looking president, and not Irish, but he was doing good things, calling for a war on poverty, and talking about civil rights. It meant all people were equal.

My homeroom teacher in St. Catherine's, Sister Eugenia Joseph, told us that Spanish would someday be a common language in the U.S., and that she asked Father Grady, our pastor, and Sister Superior that we be taught it. It wasn't happening, so Sister was taking a class herself, and would teach it after school to anyone who wanted to learn.

The next day I brought in a notebook with "Espanol" on the cover and said sign me up. She hugged me and kissed me. Nuns were changing too. I asked if I could write a story about the class for a new newspaper I was planning and she put her hands on my shoulders and looked at me misty-eyed. I guessed I was on the right track.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hit It And Quit

Kids are the most instantly nostalgic people, but I don't remember any sentiment when Little League ended and I said goodbye to my friend and teammate, Kenny Davis. We probably said something about next season, but a year is a long time for a kid. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses even though neither of us had ever made a phone call, and our neighborhoods were far apart, and unknown by one another.

Our only plan for staying in touch was over James Brown.

We talked frequently about music, although our overlap of tastes was pretty lopsided, mine to his, which made sense, as he followed black acts. Who was he going to like, Paul Anka? Not even white people liked Paul Anka. Of white acts, I primarily liked the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but of course they were largely based on black music, so despite his pleasantries about my enthusiasms, Kenny stuck with the source, his people. We both liked the Supremes (Kenny pronounced their name accenting the first syllable), Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder (as he was known then), and James Brown.

Kenny had told me that his father knew James Brown, or knew a guy who knew him - worked for him, or something. James Brown stayed near Kenny's house, over the border to Queens.

This was exciting to me, as I was planning a newspaper for my fourth-grade class in the fall, and I asked Kenny if I could get an interview with James Brown. He said he would ask his father.

He didn't fail. Our last day of Little League, he had the phone number of the friend. He wished me luck and told me to call him and tell him what happened.

I don't remember the gentleman's name. I remember he was friendly and polite, if a little surprised about an interview request from a 9-year old journalist. He told me it was certainly possible and he was sure Mr. Brown would love to do it, if his schedule allowed.

It might come as no surprise that Mr. Brown's schedule did not allow; not even for a return call. But I didn't mind. I thought I would catch up with him someday, maybe once a little more seasoned.

That was the first time I ever dialed a phone. I had to climb a high chair to do it. And then again, for my second-ever call, to Kenny, a few weeks later.

He was excited to hear from me, even though it turned out to be about a failure, or at least a setback. But, so what, we tried. He was still excited and expressive by call's end about that simple fact.

I had one funny thing to tell him. The man on the phone messed with me a little ("You're a reporter and a publisher," he asked; yes, I said, not minding the rib). "Tell me," he said, "when you come to interview Mr. Brown, do you have a tape recorder?" Tape recorder. I couldn't afford a battery.

I figured I would test him back. "No, I don't," I said. "Doesn't he?"

This brought a large laugh from the guy, and now from Kenny and me.

It was our last, though we didn't know that then. We expected maybe someday we would go together to James Brown's house and possibly get on the good foot. Instead, we hit it and quit. But we hit it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Heeding my mother's teaching, and friend Kenny's sense of sense, I let politics fade, a mere bag of shells, and focused on Little League fun.

One baseball skill I never attained was blowing the chewing gum bubble, despite pounds of trial Bazooka. Kenny was adept and tried to teach me but to no avail.

One distinct time I wished I had the ability - but Kenny filled in for me - was after a particular catch.

Late in a close game, our opponents had two on and two out. We were in a slight jam.

The batter popped one foul of third, way over my head, long and high. I turned and chased it.

I knew it was hit so far I could only reach it by running full-speed, without looking back. I'd have to guess at, not check on, its path. I'd also have to guess at its point of descent.

I ran to the proper co-ordinates, I hoped, and stuck out my glove.

I saw the ball pass in front of me, and into my glove's webbing: a snow cone catch.

I turned and held it up, third out, to far-off moans and cheers.

I met Kenny, who'd been twenty feet behind me, and flipped the ball to him. We trotted in together. He blew a bubble and that was our only expression, non-verbal, verbal, or otherwise, all the way in.

Of course, I had to smile as my teammates met and pounded me and hollered, Whoa, ho shit, this and that. But I sat down in the dugout next to Kenny having said nothing.

Him neither, at least not to me, til he turned to me and said, "Had it all the way?"

"Sure," I said.

"Was your eyes open?"

"Didn't need to be," I said.

"Boy don't need no eyes," he said, leaning back on the bench. He snapped a bubble and looked up in the air. "But can't chew gum."

"You do what you do, and I do what I do," I said, and we looked at each other and tried not to laugh too soon. This was Nice going, this was Thank you, this was teammates, this was fun.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wisdom From Above

Kenny Davis As Perry Mason was pretty convincing in making the case of neither of us as team captain, and of course he was right - all down the line, too, as Tommy Konwinski was, indeed, named captain by our coach.

So, Kenny was world-wise, at age 7 (or 8?). And I was world-weary, with this dispiriting development.

The words I couldn't quite find with Kenny, or anyone else, about the situation, I found with my mother. I had briefed her earlier. Now I was coming home with the dread conclusion.

"He's captain. Tommy Konwinski, big guy, conceited jerk. What good does that do anybody?

"He's the strongest player. But he doesn't lead anybody. He doesn't talk to half the kids. They're not good enough. He only talks to other kids who don't need any help and don't like anybody, like him."

That was the gist of it, although the un-gist was (rest assured) protracted.

At one point, my mother got up from the dining room table. "I'm still listening," she said, as she went into the kitchen.

She came back with a plate with four Oreos and a glass of milk for me. Uh-oh. That meant this was serious in her mind, for me. I had a raw vice for Oreos, which I tried to fight, so this was like opening a bottle for a bad drinker, This One Time.

I was done talking. Now was my mother's turn.

"This all reminds me of something," she said. "Some things," she decided. "That I've been thinking about since you first discussed this with me.

"Do you remember," she asked, "when they had you reading the Bible by yourself in school? Because you were too far ahead for Reading class?"

"Uh-huh," I said. That was in first grade.

"And how some of the stories disturbed you? In some it was the language. In some it was the thought."

"Mm-hmm," I said. I knew not where she was heading.

"One was the story of the lepers and the tax collectors. And how Jesus welcomed them and stayed with them, even though they were shunned by society. And you said," and she was laughing - editing herself - "well, you said you couldn't live up to that example.

"I told you not to worry, that Jesus only expects - well, I told you not to worry and we would talk about it someday when I thought it would be easier for you to understand. Today is that day.

"Jesus wants us to take care of each other, and think of others before yourself - or along with yourself, at least. He uses the example of lepers just to shock us into thinking. We can't do what he did. But we can follow his example.

"On your team, you don't try to aggrandize yourself by staying with the better players. You spend time with the boys who are not so good, and try to help them get better."

"I spend the most time with my friend Kenny Davis. He's my best friend and he's one of the best players."

"But you are friends. You don't hang around with him because he's good? He's talented but he also helps the other boys - you told me. He's modest. Like you. I bet you would like him if he was modest but not good, and you wouldn't like him if he was good but not modest."

I turned an Oreo on the plate.

"You always knew all this, in your heart, and I knew you knew. But it wasn't until you had enough experience in life, that I could talk to you about it clearly.

"My next thought, the story that really disturbed you - that was 'disgusting' - was Jesus saying if your hand leads you to trouble, cut it off, or if your eye, pluck it out. Remember?"

I did, like a story from a horror comic.

"Well," my mother said, "again, Jesus was making a point. Dramatically. And again the point was to people like Tommy Konwinski.

"It's a message with a lot of levels. But one simple level is to boys like Tommy. That if God gives you a gift - like a good hand, or eye, or you're good at sports - and you don't use your gifts generously, then it's better that you never had them. Because God expects things of us based on our blessings."

"To whom much is given, much is expected," I said.

"Exactly. So I don't want you to worry about the injustice of Tommy being named captain. That isn't as important as the work you do.

"And that's my final point. The story - this is not one that bothered you - that Jesus tells of the Pharisees who pray out on the street, or loudly in the temple, so everyone will hear, and think good of them.

"Jesus said, those men already have their reward.

"He told us to pray in private. And then we would get our reward, the important one we're praying for, not the cheap one in men's eyes."

I nodded - solemnly, perhaps, but vigorously enough, I hoped.

"You see, don't you?," my mother asked.

"I do," I said.

"Good," she said, smiling. "Now, I've talked a lot. Do you want to talk more? Or ask anything?"

I thought. "No," I said simply.

"You get it, right?"

"Right," I said, and I knew she knew I meant it. "I'm just going to go upstairs a while."

"You haven't eaten those Oreos," she said.

"It's alright?," I said. I didn't want to seem ungrateful. "I'll have them tonight."

"Okay," my mother said.

I went upstairs to the bedroom I shared with my two brothers.

The sun streamed in and our bedsheets were bright. Eddie's was orange, Paddy's was yellow, mine was NFL, with logos. I guess the different sheets helped us stay personally distinct, in a small space.

I looked out the window at our yard and the alley and the street. I turned around and knelt down at my bed. I put my forehead to the bed, on my folded arms, and said Thank You. I didn't want anything but to say that.

Monday, November 21, 2011


So maybe Kenny Davis and I would be Best Men at each other's teenage weddings, rather than go to Vietnam, but that was in the future.

In the present was the issue of team captaincy.

About halfway through the season, coach announced that he would name a captain. To formalize leadership, recognize ability - maybe acknowledge valor; I don't remember. Easy to make fun of (it's only Little League), but there it was, a real thing, status conferred, so you had to take it seriously.

Or I did, as that kind of kid.

Coach was going to wait a while to decide. He hadn't yet, he said. We would each have the chance to step up and earn it for ourselves, he said, or to lobby for someone else.

"What do you think?," I said to Kenny. "Should it be you, or me?"

"What do you think?," Kenny said. "We either have a chance?" His look said No.

"What do you mean?," I said, responding to that look. "Of course we do. Who plays harder than us?"

"We get dirty," he acknowledged. "But, come on. Konnie is the boy."

"Konnie" was Tommy Konwinski, our star pitcher. Big and strong, he also had a mean streak that intimidated foes.

The trouble was, it affected teammates just as much, if not more. Make a bad play and he might show you up on the field. Make a key out at bat and he'd rank you out on the bench.

"Konnie," I said derisively. "He don't lead, he - ", and I stopped, lost for words, for once.

"He leads the way coach sees it," Kenny said.

"Me and you are out here every week early and late, helping other kids with their game," I said.

"I'm not saying me or you don't deserve it. I'm saying we're not going to get it."

I frowned. No words.

"And me," Kenny said. "I got an even extra reason." He touched his fingers to his face.

"Oh, man," I said. We had never discussed race before. This was a hard place to start.

"Come on, man," he said. "It's like your grandmama said about wishing."

Huh. I had told him once how our grandmother helped raise us. And when we'd say, as kids will, that I wish this, or I wish that, she would scowl, comically, and glare, and bark in her brogue, so heavy with native - or immigrant - fatalism, "Well, wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one fills up first."

It surprised me that it stuck with him - enough to remember it, now?

"Kenny, she didn't mean that. She was just being funny."

"Well, it is funny. It's funny because it's true."

I got the feeling he was telling me something, that he knew more about than I did.